Faun, Woman, Rider, Horse, 1956

Sidney Nolan, Faun, Woman, Rider, Horse, 1956, mixed media on paper, 25.4 x 30.5 cm, inscribed ‘Faun, Woman, Rider, Horse, Greek theme. Myth (127), Sculpture, black parts engraved’

Mark Fraser is an independent art advisor specialising in the work of Sidney Nolan. He previously worked as an art auctioneer and at the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart.

"I have never liked counterfactual history. It seems hard enough to work out what happened without adding the infinite permutations of what did not. Despite this, some ‘what ifs’ flit through my mind about Sidney Nolan’s life: if Sunday Reed had encouraged him to focus on poetry instead of painting (ironic perhaps that his strongest poems, decades later, were those that mauled their relationship); if he had ended up fighting in the New Guinea jungle like his near-contemporary Clifton Pugh, instead of guarding stores in the Wimmera; or if he had remained in Australia and not moved permanently to Britain.

Another counterfactual came to light recently while researching an exhibition of Nolan’s 1955-56 Greek paintings. On the back of a small painting on paper, Faun, Woman, Rider, Horse dated 10 January 1956, Nolan wrote ‘Sculpture, black parts engraved’. The figure group, depicting a faun dragging a woman from a bolting horse, is set on a sculptural socle.

Nolan the sculptor? I couldn’t find much in the literature or auction records: Woman and bird and Gun at the Contemporary Art Society exhibitions in 1941 and ’42 are intriguing; Lovers, a small, editioned, bronze from the late 1960s or early ‘70s appears to be based on a theme inspired by Robert Lowell’s poetry; a marble reputedly owned by Lord McAlpine that also relates to Lowell’s lovers; and a well-documented group of tiny gold sculptures of heads also from that period. I would include in this list the desiccated carcasses of drought animals that Nolan re-arranged in 1952 as ephemeral sculpture for his series of photographs.

When I started looking at the back of works for other sculpture-related inscriptions I found multiple examples from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘80s and subjects including Ned Kelly, burning drought carcasses, concentration camps and Greek themes. Nolan’s notes often provide additional information about the form these sculptures would take: ‘beaten copper’; ‘perhaps in giant form as a desert monument, and perhaps as a chair, with stretched hide seat’; ‘beaten iron with woven-plaited straw shield and enamelled (or colour Perspex) flag face’; ‘Project for burning carcases monument in Central Australia/Ayers Rock? Wave Hill’; ‘make in ceramic?’; ‘carved in onyx/jasper’; ‘sketch for jewelled sculpture’; ‘marble and bronze scale 3 metres high'; ‘metal (and shining) figure of Daedalus hanging from roof – on floor metal figure of the Minotaur’.

The subject needs more research but in the meantime this counterfactual has opened my eyes to a new way of seeing Nolan’s work."

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